On June 9, 2009, the mystery writer Marcus Sakey and I were seated at Sheffield’s, sharing a few beers and talking about his soon-to-be-released novel, The Amateurs. Between rounds—at least one of them provided by the bar’s co-owner Ric Hess (requiescat in pace)—the talk drifted to other topics, including the new book Sakey had recently begun writing. “It’s about a man who wakes up naked on a beach in Maine,” he revealed. What’s more, the man has no idea of who he is, turning the novel into, among other things, a “quest for his identity,” as Sakey put it.
Sakey offered one more hint about that new project, though I didn’t pick up on it at the time. We were discussing a character who prowls about on the fringes of The Amateurs, a ruthless, amoral killer named Bennett. “He’s kind of a throwaway character,” said Sakey, “though the most honest one in the book. I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns up again.”
Now, two years to the day, Sakey has followed through on that beer-fueled conversation with the release of his latest book, The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes. A mystery (actually, multiple mysteries) in three acts, it does indeed begin on a nearly deserted beach in Maine before traveling quickly “across the belly of America” and descending on Los Angeles—a city that’s “got no memory”—as its principal setting. And driving the plot is the notorious Mr. Bennett, “a cockroach, crawling in and out of everybody’s dark places,” as one character puts it. “He was so calm,” remembers another. “Smiling, always smiling. That was the worst part. I think he could have done anything to me, and then gone on about his day. Not felt a thing about it.”
And then. . . . Well, I’d like to tell you more specifics about Sakey’s book, but its intricate storyline—with its shifting perspectives, multiple identities, unexpected twists, and violent mayhem—is so ingeniously concocted that to discuss just one aspect of the novel risks revealing all its secrets. Take the various and tantalizing implications of the title: The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes. That mystery remains unresolved until page 385 of this 390-page book, which means that even the simple exercise of discussing what the title might and might not mean could dilute some of the pleasure a reader can take from finding out what happens next.
Per his usual MO, Sakey isn’t interested in merely presenting a tale so gripping that it will make readers “blow their subway stop,” as he put it two years ago. (I didn’t miss my el stop this time around—although my desire to read just one more chapter of Daniel Hayes did cause me to miss most of the thrilling conclusion of Tuesday’s Heat-Mavs matchup in Game 4 of the NBA finals. Curse you, Sakey!) There’s also a soupçon of philosophical musing, from both the cold-eyed Mr. Bennett and the novel’s amnesiac protagonist. “You’re only the person who you choose to be,” the latter reflects. “Every moment. The past is gone. Memories are no more solid than dreams. The only real thing, the only true thing, is the present. That’s it.”
• Sakey talks about his new book with the Chicago Tribune’s Rick Kogan on the June 12th edition of The Sunday Papers on WGN Radio–720 AM (the show gets under way at 6:30 a.m., but according to Sakey’s website, he’s not slated to appear until 7:30). And you can join Sakey later that night for a book-release party at The Hidden Shamrock (2723 North Halsted Street).
Photograph: Jeff Sciortino